The Place of Development in Mathematical Evolutionary Theory

Research output: Contribution to journalComment/debate

18 Scopus citations


Development plays a critical role in structuring the joint offspring-parent phenotype distribution. It thus must be part of any truly general evolutionary theory. Historically, the offspring-parent distribution has often been treated in such a way as to bury the contribution of development, by distilling from it a single term, either heritability or additive genetic variance, and then working only with this term. I discuss two reasons why this approach is no longer satisfactory. First, the regression of expected offspring phenotype on parent phenotype can easily be nonlinear, and this nonlinearity can have a pronounced impact on the response to selection. Second, even when the offspring-parent regression is linear, it is nearly always a function of the environment, and the precise way that heritability covaries with the environment can have a substantial effect on adaptive evolution. Understanding these complexities of the offspring-parent distribution will require understanding of the developmental processes underlying the traits of interest. I briefly discuss how we can incorporate such complexity into formal evolutionary theory, and why it is likely to be important even for traits that are not traditionally the focus of evo-devo research. Finally, I briefly discuss a topic that is widely seen as being squarely in the domain of evo-devo: novelty. I argue that the same conceptual and mathematical framework that allows us to incorporate developmental complexity into simple models of trait evolution also yields insight into the evolution of novel traits.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)480-488
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Experimental Zoology Part B: Molecular and Developmental Evolution
Issue number6
StatePublished - Sep 2012


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